Thursday, November 12, 2009

Getting Intimate with Anger

As part of the jukai process (lay ordination), each of us was asked in August to choose one of the Buddhist precepts to practice literally for a year. The intent was to select something that would be challenging, something that touched a deep part of yourself.

I chose the Ninth Precept, which deals with anger. One version reads: I vow to not harbor ill will, but to practice loving kindness. Other times it is listed simply as: There is no anger.

At first, I was drawn to the "no slander" precept, which is definitely something I could use some work on - especially at the office, where we find great delight in pointing out the shortcomings of various people we run into in the course of the day.

But something about the "no anger" precept drew me, even before I could clearly articulate why. The expression of anger for me is almost taboo. I grew up witnessing a lot of rage and unpredictable outbursts, and experienced more as a young adult living with explosive partners. Other people's anger terrifies me. I will do anything to get away from it.

Equally terrifying is the knowledge that I myself have the capacity to get angry. I have spent much of my life burying those feelings deep in my body; although outwardly it may appear that I rarely blow up, inwardly anger resides in secret pockets, behind closed doors, and I live in constant fear that it will leak out into the open.

I have been kidding myself that I have successfully entombed that inner rage. I am listening to lectures by Pema Chodron, Don't Bite the Hook, which deal with anger. In her words, I am hearing how my anger has nested itself into my life.

I have always been strongly opinionated. When I was very young, I was incredibly rigid in my belief system. I like to think that I have grown a great deal in the last twenty years, softening some of that extreme version of the world in clear-cut black and white sides on every topic. But there are a number of things that I still feel so passionately about, truths that I have come to through intense and hard personal work, that I can still be amazingly intransigent, convinced that I am right.

I'm talking about things like speaking out against racism or ethnocentrism or homophobia or violence against women. I'm referring to bigotry and religious intolerance and xenophobic rants. Those are the things that make my blood boil.

For all of my talk of compassion and acceptance, hearing that the local cop who happens to be a friend of mine had voted for Prop 8, taking away the right of gay marriage, I became so incensed that I had to leave the room.

One night at a club, a Filippina woman I was dating made a racist comment about the black karaoke singer. I grabbed her by the arm and pulled her violently towards me, demanding, "What did you say?" It wasn't until I saw the fear in her eyes, the way she recoiled from me, that I realized I had completely lost it, becoming as dark as the bigotry I was sworn to combat.

When I was walking downtown in Los Gatos, and a pick-up truck of guys drove by, hollering out the window at me, "Fucking dyke!" - instead of being a warrior bodhisattva, facing that assault with kindness and patience, I spun around and flipped them the bird, yelling, "Fuck you!" at the top of my lungs.

The day I saw a man strike his girlfriend and throw her to the sidewalk, I was so enraged that I began to run towards him. I had every intention of leaping on top of him and pummeling him with my fists. The only thing that stopped me was the friend who physically held me back.

Even though these particular examples make me feel ashamed, I have always justified them. I am a lesbian who has been discriminated against, and physically threatened because of my sexual orientation. I grew up in a multi-racial/cultural family, and witnessed too many examples of racism in the society at large. I am a survivor of domestic violence, and I don't want any other woman, ever, to be afraid the way I was.

I was in the right. I was working for social justice. It's necessary to get angry to fight back. How else are we going to defeat all this hatred?

Well, well. I wonder why I chose the Ninth Precept?


  1. Hmmmm... there's no end of things to rage about, that's for sure. Does transforming it into activity & zazen help? You betcha! And I used to put my anger into my work, clean it up & make good use of the energy rather than have it burn me out.


  2. I know anger well. For the first 5 decades plus of my life, I was a walking volcano waiting to erupt. Meditation enter my life and the constant state of anger disappeared. I also learned to look at what is beneath the anger and quite often is was fear of loss of something. I do have access to my anger --it is a powerful energy and I am grateful for that.

  3. i am also working with this precept, but for me anger has been my default emotion. Over time it has insinuated itself into my life in the form of suspicion and distrust. In the book "Healing Anger" the Dali Lama says that we see anger as our protector, a friend that would help in our battle, when in fact this is delusion. For me,harboring ill will and distrust depletes the energy of right effort (virya) that i need to live a life vow to practice inclusion and lovingkindness. so when anger comes, and it does,i try to sink down in and and see whats there...for me usually fear in one form or another.


  4. This topic seems to speak to many of us.

    Tony, I think zazen does help. It has made me overall feel more centered and less reactive.

    Marj, I think you're right about the fear underlying the anger. Fear for me is either paralyzing, or pushes me to rage -- the two extremes. "The middle way" is the challenge.

    Debi, I like that you said "inclusion" as well as lovingkindness. That's where I fall short when I'm really angry. I feel "apart from" and then I increase the divide with righteous anger. So "inclusion" is a key thing to work on.